CVS Health exec: Retail giant wants to create a Netflix-like healthcare experience

BOSTON—When CVS and Aetna closed their merger about a year ago, they promised the combined behemoth would benefit patients.

While that remains to be seen, the merged entities unveiled more details this week on their consumer-focused ambitions to build a tech-enabled healthcare experience that combines artificial intelligence, virtual care services and connected devices with brick-and-mortar clinics.

CVS Health wants to connect the physical and digital experience to expand consumers' access to care, CVS Health Chief Digital Officer Firdaus Bhathena said while speaking at the Digital Health Impact conference in Boston on Monday. Those experiences could be a virtual doctor visit, using an AI-powered chatbot or sending health data to a physician through a connected device, he said.

The conference, hosted by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, brought together digital leaders from Anthem, Harvard University, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Dana-Farber, Sanofi, and other organizations to discuss the impact of digital technology. 

The company is investing heavily in its technology infrastructure and wants to leverage the differentiated capabilities of both companies, and its combined size, to move forward with innovation, he said.

RELATED: CVS plans to turn 1,500 stores into HealthHUBs

"There are things you can do at scale that are hard to do in healthcare," he said. "We’re not going to invent every connected device and we're not going to come up with every breakthrough. But we do have a direct connection to millions of consumers and want to leverage that and bring value and bring innovations to life. We can do that in a way that independently that we could not have."

CVS recently hired former Fitbit executive Adam Pellegrini as its new senior vice president of transformation consumer health products.

CVS is renovating 1,500 of its stores into HealthHUBs to focus more on health services. These HealthHUB locations have more than 20% of store space dedicated to health services including "new product categories, digital tools, and on-demand health kiosks, trusted advice and personalized care," according to CVS.

The company will have up to 50 HealthHUBS open this year. "These stores are located in places where the communities need the most help in terms of access to care," Bhathena said.

RELATED: CVS-Aetna merger clears federal judge's review

"A lot of this is not rocket science; it's giving people simple, direct access to care when and where they need it," he said. Bhathena contends the retail giant is not competing with primary care doctors but is providing care options for minor health problems so physicians can focus on the highest-need patients.

He also presented a video showing what the future of CVS Health’s tech-enabled services could look like: smart speakers connected to health apps that give consumers data on their sleep quality and heart rate and rewards users with a free Starbucks for meeting activity goals. In one scenario, the health app analyses a man’s health data, shares the data with his doctor and alerts the consumer via a smart speaker that the doctor wants him to increase his insulin dose.

In another, a mother at home with a sick child uses an AI-powered symptom checker tool to diagnose the cause for her child’s fever.

It’s part of a vision to offer in-person and virtual health care as easy to understand and pay for as Netflix, Bhathena said.

What the future holds for payers

Collaborative partnerships, exponential technologies, and new business models are rapidly changing the healthcare industry, said Mariya Filipova, VP of Innovation at insurance giant Anthem, during the conference.

Healthcare collaborations such as blockchain consortiums are already underway to tackle system-wide problems that impact every organization, such as standardizing and managing patient consent.

RELATED: Anthem launching new app offering personalized health information, texting with doctors

While technology is transforming the industry, insurance actuarial models have remained the same, she said.

"We're working to build platforms to anticipate risk and allow us to intervene or prevent an event or have an educated discussion around what is the right care coordination. That platform will be predicated on AI technologies and collaborative partnerships," she said.

Anthem also is exploring new business models, Filipova said.

On average, a health plan member stays with that plan for 24 to 36 months and may come back multiple times. "It's difficult to think about long-term interventions. The challenge is to start surfacing the ROI of long term thinking and begin to address co-morbidities and connect those dots at an accelerated pace.

Anthem is exploring the use of augmented intelligence to predict and prevent disease. "There are opportunities to drive positive outcomes and behavioral change. Human behavior one of the toughest things to change. It takes a system-level approach and technologies," she said.